In the summer of ’84 I was 18 and my one close schoolfriend – throwing over family, final exams and an offer from Oxford, explaining nothing, saying goodbye to no one – suddenly escaped the dirty pinched seams of the Welsh valleys for the deeper, richer filth of London. Of course when he called my Aberystwyth University digs from a payphone, almost too drunk to read out his address, the endless traffic of the capital roaring like a stadium in the background, I caught the overnight bus out of sleeping Wales and followed after him.
In those days there was political glamour in squatting. Horror stories of Knightsbridge Pieds-à-Terre taken over by roving anarchist cells peppered the Thatcherite press, but the reality was very different. I found Benny in a burned out upper flat on King Henry’s Road. A bed fire had smoked the place out, killing the old man who’d owned it, and the downstairs flat was in the middle of being gutted by builders, so no-one seemed to mind the little crowd of misfits and dropped-out students camping there. Benny was proud of the tiny room he’d snagged for himself; everyone else had simply spread out sleeping mats in the big, bay-windowed living room. He needed privacy to read and write, he explained, and the box-room’s back window, slender as a castle’s arrow-slit, had a view of nearby Primrose Hill where, Benny told me, drunk but deadly serious, Blake had not just seen but conversed with the Spiritual Sun.
We’ll have to sleep head to foot, he announced, pointing at the skinny bedroll taking up most of the floor.
What’s that smell? I asked.
Jimi Hendrix. He jerked his head towards the hall: we were being watched by a sleek, long-faced cat. He brings in dead stuff.
In fact, the smell was Benny’s feet, but I wouldn’t discover that until night.
I’d arrived before 8AM and Benny was already drinking Newcastle Brown. Nobody else was awake, and in the shuttered gloom we’d been stepping softly around the mummy-like forms of bedrolls and blankets. He squeezed past me and padded into the kitchen to find another beer.
The other squatters liked Benny, especially the contrast between his heavy valleys accent and his scholarly otherworldliness, but they were suspicious of me from beginning to end. The dominant presence was Mo (Mo for Mohammed, I assumed, but months later, in court, discovered it was Mo for Moroccan, and his name was Ismail). He ran the place like a family business, importing hash from his home village and paying the other squatters to do the menial jobs of weighing and cutting and selling. He was older than the rest of us, and rarely spoke even to his girlfriend, Kat, a nervous college drop-out with a tight little pot belly. She cried a lot over random things, like Jimi Hendrix not wanting a titbit, or the workmen hammering in the flat below. Officially, Benny was the lookout, but he was always blind drunk at his station near the foot of the stairs. Despite the dereliction of duty, I think Mo liked the fact he kept to a constant diet of Newcastle Brown: it meant he never bothered smoking the merchandise.
Never entrusted with a job, I spent my days wandering the neighbourhood – the Jewish Museum when it rained, The Roundhouse if there was a band rehearsing (Kat worked part-time in the ticketing office and would let me slip in) and the crown of Primrose Hill when it was fine. I saw druids there once, chanting in white robes, and realised to my suddenly homesick amazement that their chant was in Welsh.
Every so often I would try to persuade Benny to come home. Not to his family in Pontypridd – that was hopeless – but to Aberystwyth where he could sleep on my floor and maybe even take some evening courses once he’d dried out a little. Or a lot.
One July night, the air still soft like afternoon through the letterbox window, there was a moment when I think he nearly relented. I’d exhausted all my arguments again, but for once he was thoughtful afterwards, nodding over the book he’d been reading. The voices of drunks sifted in on the warm breeze; a young man and woman, shouting nonsense on Primrose Hill. Benny stirred, a strange, concussed smile on his face, though instead of agreeing to leave he simply quoted from his book. Listen to this: Caradoc Evans on love. So few people have met her, and those who could describe her as she is are afraid of the police. Ha! he laughed, and that was an end to it.
Instead of going home, Benny followed Mo to squat after squat, staying one step ahead of the law. Despairing of him, I’d left London for a while but in a fit of remorse took the long bus trip back at the end of September.
By then it was just Benny, Mo and Kat, who looked more than ever like one of the Hungry Ghosts in Buddhist hell. Benny looked even worse: he’d been beaten senseless a week before. They’d found a top floor flat in a condemned high-rise near Brixton. Benny wasn’t reading any more – his books had all been lost or stolen along the way – and he barely noticed me for all the week or more I spent there, the last days I’d ever spend with him, but he’d scrawled some lines of Dylan Thomas’s on one of the empty walls:
Why don’t we live here always? Always and always. Build a bloody house and live like bloody kings!
So high up, those desolate, scraped-bare apartments were filled each day with astonishing, streaming light. I picture him, sick and bruised, scribbling those words above his bedroll like a prayer, or spell. From just one corner window, if you knew where to squint through the haze, you could see beyond the copper snake of the river to the green rise of Primrose Hill.